While in Jerusalem, we decided to visit several Palestinian towns, including the obvious choice of Bethlehem. I read a lot about the security wall situation beforehand online, but the information did not seem consistent. I knew that we had to go to the Arab bus station by the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, but it turned out that there were at least three different lots for the Arab buses. However, the lines to Bethlehem were in the “main” bus lot near the streetcar station for the Damascus Gate. I also read that we should take bus 21 to Beit Jala or minibus 24 to Bethlehem. The shelters for the buses are only about twenty-five feet from each other. So, we decided that we would take whichever bus arrived first. I am glad that we took bus 21. Minibus 24 evidently takes you to the security checkpoint outside Bethlehem, but then you have to walk or to catch a taxi to town. Bus 21, however, takes you through some lovely mountainous countryside south of Jerusalem before arriving in Bethlehem not far from Manger Square. On the way, we were able to see the Herodion in the distance. The bus goes through the checkpoint, and you only have to deal with security (having soldiers board the bus for inspection) on the way back into “normal” Israel. Once we arrived in Bethlehem, Arab taxi drivers repeatedly told us that it was a long walk to Manger Square, but it was not. I wonder if they misrepresent on purpose or if they think that Americans are too weak to walk ten blocks. We enjoyed seeing the Christian neighborhoods in the lovely desert rain.
We spent the morning in the Church of the Nativity. While waiting in line to visit the chapel of the Nativity, we were behind a Russian pilgrimage group and in front of a German group. We were Poland, and the two groups were quietly positioning all the time for more Lebensraum. We held our own turf, though, thanks to my ample experience in dealing with foreign queue weasels. The German tour guide explained Orthodox liturgical practices to her fellow Teutons as they waited, while the Russians prayed by the icons in the southern chapel where the entrance to the crypt is located. Once we were below, the Russian group sang while their two priests led a moleben. I was grateful that my visit to the cave of the Lord’s birth had a traveling Russian choir for its soundtrack. After we venerated the cave, we visited the attached Roman Church of Saint Catherine as well as its crypt, which includes the cells and tombs of Jerome and his followers. This was a surprise for me. I knew that Jerome translated the scriptures in Palestine, but I did not know that he lived next to the Church of the Nativity.
After we left the Nativity complex, we went shopping at Blessings Olive Wood Factory on Milk Grotto Street next to the Milk Grotto. Along the street are dozens of vendors, but we passed them to get to the place that was recommended to me before I went to Israel. There, a hospitable Palestinian Christian family sells wood carvings that they make in the workshop next door. It was fascinating to see their skills in action as well as to peruse their beautiful merchadise. The olive wood carvings that peddlers sell in the Old City come from the craftsmen in Bethlehem, who sell their goods directly to you for much cheaper.
After souvenir and gift shopping, we visited the neighboring Milk Grotto, run by the Franciscans and also tended by Sacramentine Nuns. In addition to the grotto, there are numerous chapels as well as ruins from previous churches at the site.
By the time we finished visiting the Milk Grotto, it was past lunchtime. We headed back to Manger Square to eat at Afteem, where they sell what is considered the finest falafel in Israel. The atmosphere, service, and food were excellent. I recommend it to anyone who visits Bethlehem. It must pass for a local gem, too, as an Arab family was celebrating a birthday feast for a little girl when we were there. The family who runs it appears to be Palestinian Christian, as well—there were several icons inside the restaurant, which closes for business on Sunday.
After lunch at Afteem, we walked around town. I had originally wanted to visit the churches in the Shepherds’ Fields, but I did not want to haggle with the vulturous taxi drivers, and we did not feel like ambling in the countryside that afternoon in the rain. I visited the Judean desert, where drought is normal, and it rained every day! As we were walking on streets named King David, Paul VI, Carmel, Manger, and Star, several people asked why we were not in a taxi. One young shopkeeper even offered to drive us to the bus station himself. We returned by foot to the bus stop and took 21 back to Jerusalem. And, yes, I did hum the carol in my mind while visiting those not so dark streets.
Happy feast day to my friend Andrew and to all Andrews, Andreas, and their various forms on the new calendar!
If you plan to go to the Holy Land, you may find the Franciscans’ Christian Information Centre very helpful. The Franciscans have maintained the Latin presence in Palestine for centuries, but they offer useful pilgrimage information for all Christians. Perhaps it is due to my own family’s Franciscan heritage, but I find Francis’ disciples to be the most genial of Rome’s orders—the most Orthodox, dare I say. Franciscans manifest a sacramental, cosmological approach to the world, and they combine heart with their intellect. Their love, joy, and gratitude reminds me very much of Orthodoxy. One sometimes finds Orthodox criticism of Franciscan spirituality, wherein the polemicist contrasts Francis with Seraphim of Sarov. Yet, I think that the comparison is fitting, though not in a negative way. Both men typify the best of their traditions. May they pray for us and for Christian unity in truth and in charity.
I have recently been looking into various aspects of Israeli tourism. As I was reading the Wikipedia article for “Bus travel in Israel,” I chuckled when I read (emphasis mine),
If you want the driver to tell you your stop, it is best to be clear about it. If you just tell the driver where you want to go, he may ask you at the following stop why you didn’t get off. Also, he might forget, so it is often better to ask the passengers.
While Israeli manners may be rougher than in some other countries, they are also more likely to actually help you, with several people debating the best route for you.
They just cannot help themselves.
Last week, Americans commemorated the tenth anniversary of the the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. I found most occasions of public memorial rather distasteful. Modern American society pushes us to indulge in pathos. Moreover, as Lawrence Auster has often remarked, the officially sanctioned language regarding the horrible events ten years ago perverts the public understanding. The day was not one of tragedy but of malice and aggression. People did not just die; our enemies intentionally killed them. A decade later, many of us remain clueless and apathetic to the war without and the war within. Instead of waking to the problem, we have gone on a long ride that benefits politicians, war industrialists, and even our enemies. We are the suckers of world history.
One commemorative item that I found suitable was an interactive feature on the New York Times, “The World Trade Center Towers As They Were.” You may listen to a narration about the towers as you manipulate the device to look at a computer model of the World Trade Center complex. There are also interviews about the architecture, engineering, and art of the site. The Frenchman in the interview notes how the towers functioned as a compass for people who emerged from the subway. Such was true for my brothers and me when we visited the city. A glimpse of the towers informed us immediately which way was south. I was not a fan of the glass and steel design, but the complex was noble in its own way. Our nation has ceased to be so ambitious in our buildings. We have ceded civilizational confidence to other nations.
It is vacation time in much of the civilized world. If you find yourself at the beach, in the mountains, on the lake, or in a distant land soaking up the local color, enjoy yourself and be grateful for the splendor of life.
Relatedly, I have discovered an interesting site that showcases postcards from around the world, Wild Postcards. It is well designed with suitably scenic content that makes me want to travel to the depicted destinations. Happy trekking!
John Bloom (“Joe Bob Briggs”) makes some comedic observations of Niagara Falls’ tacky tourism in Taki’s Magazine: “Niagara Falls, Ontario: World’s Greatest Tourist Trap.” I visited Niagara Falls three years ago, and I can attest that the Canadian side holds its own in the realm of Ripley’s Believe It or Not spots. I do not mind the hucksterism and tastelessness; that underbelly of culture has its own charms. Human beings are endless fascinating, even in their silliness.
However, there are many wonderful things about Niagara Falls on both sides of the river. The lakes, falls, and river are spectacular. Both Ontario and New York have made visiting these natural attractions quite easy; parks, picnic areas, and viewing platforms are located throughout the region. I recommend the Niagara Falls and Great Gorge Adventure Pass from the Niagara Parks Commission in Ontario. I would also recommend a day trip to visit the vineyards north of the falls, including a stop at the quaint Niagara-on-the-Lake. If you visit the Canadian side, do not overlook the Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens and Butterfly Conservatory.
The New York side is not entirely bereft of entertainment. The New York State Reservation offers some grand views of the falls, and it is free to enter on foot. New York’s other parks along the river, like Whirlpool State Park, are excellent places to eat with a view after picking up some delectable treats at DiCamillo Bakery. You can always get a bit of history at Fort Niagara, opposite Niagara-on-the-Lake, which offers a distant view of Toronto. You may also make the short drive to Buffalo to feast at the Anchor Bar, the origin of Buffalo wings. So, get fat in America and get stupid in Canada; that’s a fine recipe for a fun vacation.
Last week, I discovered a blog written by an American expat in Paris, Nichole Robertson, called Little Brown Pen. Her site features photographs that she has taken for the Paris Color Project; Robertson captures scenes and organizes them by hue and tint. She has a wonderful eye for seeing beauty everywhere, especially in the details of the Parisian cityscape that endear it to so many. You will certainly enjoy her aesthetic appreciation of my old town. Vive la ville-lumière! How I miss it.
Last month, I internetically stumbled upon The Moscow Times’ photostream, which features about one hundred pictures. They bring back memories.
Speaking of the Russkies, I decided over the weekend to learn more about past and present Russian governmental structures. I still cannot understand the Soviet system; it was ridiculously messy. Such was appropriate for scam politics in a state where there was no rule of law. The new constitutional order seems to follow the American regime somewhat, with a bicameral federal legislature, the Federal Assembly, consisting of the State Duma as the lower house and the Federation Council as the upper house. As far as I can tell, the members of the Duma are not elected to represent a particular district. Rather, the people vote for parties in a national election, and each party’s representation in the Duma depends on the proportion of votes that each party receives. The parties themselves choose which party members represent the party in the Duma. The Duma must start all legislation, which is like our House of Representatives insofar as all tax bills must begin in the House.
There are many shortcomings to the American system, but I find it superior to the Russian regime in a number of ways. The peculiar election system for the Duma does not allow for a connection between the voters and their representatives; for there are no candidates. There is also no need for parties to campaign or to be as responsive to each local region, as the election is national. Less populous regions must garner less attention than they do in the American system, where geographical representation in the federal government is assured even outside the Senate. Moreover, the Duma system puts much power in the hands of the parties’ elites. Such a system contrasts much with the American system, where “all politics is local.” Of course, there are many American critics of our provincial tendencies, but they are wrong. The quirkiness of the American system allows other factors such as personal acquaintance, character assessment, and local concerns to contend with and even to trump ideology, and I think that such makes for a healthier political regime, especially as democratic peoples are endemically susceptible to perverse ideological fevers.
The Federation Council is like our Senate in that each Russian federal subject sends two members to it. A federal subject is like an American State, though it can be a number of various entities with different degrees of autonomy. In this, the federal subject more closely resembles the localities in many States, where different types have different levels of power (a township as compared to a village or city in Ohio, for instance). Yet, each federal subject has an equal representation in the Federation Council. The Russian upper house also resembles the original (and better) American Senate in that its members are not elected by the voters but rather chosen by the federal subject’s government. The local legislature chooses one member, and the governor chooses the other. This seems like a good idea in that it gives power to local authorities who have an interest in keeping power decentralized, but Putin altered the balance when he pushed for the Russian President to be able to appoint governors. Since then, the president has chosen each governor. As each governor chooses one of his federal subject’s members in the Federation Council, half the council is indirectly subservient to the president. Clearly, such is a perversion of the Federation Council’s intended role, but it is an example of how Putin centralized political control during his presidency. He may have thought such necessary, though, to keep regions of non-Russian ethnicity from secession.
A significant difference between the Russian and American systems is that the Russian upper body cannot initiate any legislation. It may only affirm or veto the legislation of the Duma, but the Duma may override a veto with a two thirds vote. In this, the Russian system appears to resemble the British parliament after it emasculated the House of Lords. The upper house may only obstruct; it may not lead. I also read that a two thirds vote is needed to override a presidential veto, but I am not sure if that large majority is necessary in both houses or simply in the Duma.
I have a question for Russians or those knowledgeable in Russian. What is the difference between собор (sobor) and совет (soviet)? Both appear to mean meeting, council, or assembly. I know that an ecclesial council is a sobor and that it was a Земский собор—an assembly of all the land—that put the Romanovs in power after the Time of Troubles. Of course, we all know the use of soviet. Yet, is there a difference in meaning? The Federation Council is Совет Федерации (Sovet Federatsii), and the Federal Assembly appears to be a version of sobor, Федеральное Собрание (Federalnoye Sobraniye), though I am not sure.
As I type, thousands of committed prolife Americans are travelling to Washington to participate in the March for Life. In just a few hours, they will arrive in the capital, cramped and tired, and step into the stinging cold air that nonetheless must provide a nice change from the stagnant atmosphere of a charter bus. I somewhat miss the hassle and strain that I had to go through to get to D.C. for the march. The trip seemed like a pilgrimage, and the pain in travel added to the value of the mission.
Now, when I simply walk down Constitution Avenue after having gotten up, showered, and eaten breakfast, it seems a bit like cheating. I also miss the camaraderie of the trips. In undergrad., our Students for Life group would organize stays in the lounges of local colleges, and we would remain in D.C. for several days to see the sights as well as to participate in the march and in other prolife activities. Staying up all night in a Georgetown study lounge, discussing scholastic ethics or arguing whether Homer or Vergil gave his society the better epic are moments that I remember fondly.
Moreover, the city appeared more enchanting when I did not know it well. Of course, getting lost in the ‘hood back then because I did not know about the quadrant system (how many intersections at Fourth and H Streets are there?) make me appreciate my current acquaintance with Washington. Still, there is something marvellous about a new, mysterious town where the various places that you visit do not fit together to make an overall map but rather suggest an infinity of potential experiences.
I suppose that it is yet another example of how life is about trade offs. The new and alluring ceases to be mysterious once you live somewhere for long, but then you develop a relationship with a town, as it becomes an old friend. When I visited Paris as a sixteen year old, it was magical. When I returned to live and to study there, the magic wore off, but a new love developed. It became my town—no longer unknown, perhaps a bit less enchanting, but more loved and appreciated. Only by spending much time in a place can you begin to know all of its hidden charms that outsiders miss. My first impression of the Seine could not have been more romantic, and yet only when I lived in the City of Lights did I have the opportunity to enjoy the Parc des Buttes Chaumont on a windy day in the summer, the cozy hospitality of certain small Mediterranean cafés near Saint-Germain-des-Prés, or strolling through the Parc Monceau among April blooms on a Sunday afternoon after the liturgy. Contrast the emotional riches of the adolescent crush with the faithful marriage of many years. Each has its own delights, but the latter rests superior.
Anyway, I wish all of the marchers a safe trip and a fruitful time in Washington. I hope that the legions of teenagers and college students find the city wonderful for the hours or days that they experience it.
It is my brother Adam’s birthday, and I wish him the best.
To commemorate his day, I present The Open Road by Claude Friese-Greene. Greene filmed The Open Road as a travelogue of a road trip in A.D. 1924 from Land’s End in Cornwall to John o’ Groats in Caithness and then finally to London. Adam and I made our very own road trip to see these British extremities, though I suspect that we took a slightly different course.
The movie is charming—another testament to what Britain has lost since the war. What commercial liberal man has exchanged for mammon!
Anyway, happy birthday, Adam! I remember well those little towns, Welsh castles, and Scottish Highlands.